Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Frederick Chapman Robbins

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Frederick Chapman Robbins

Article excerpt

25 AUGUST 1916 * 4 AUGUST 2003

FREDERICK CHAPMAN ROBBINS, an international leader in virology, pediatrics, infectious diseases, vaccinology, epidemiology, and health policy, died on 4 August 2003, three weeks before his eighty-seventh birthday. The 1954 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology had been awarded in 1954 to the trio of Fred Robbins, Tom Weller, and their senior mentor, John Enders, for their work demonstrating the growth of polioviruses in cell culture systems. Their results not only paved the way for the development of poliovirus vaccines by Jonas SaIk and Albert Sabin, but opened an entirely new vista to the field of virology, enabling the discovery, growth, and study of hundreds of viruses never previously available for laboratory exploration. Robbins was only thirty-three years old at the time of the first publication of these successful studies.

Born in Auburn, Alabama, he soon moved with his family to Columbia, Missouri, where he spent most of his childhood and his early adult years. He attended the University of Missouri, from which he received his A.B. in 1936 and, after two years in its medical school, a B.S. in 1938, which enabled him to complete his medical studies at Harvard in 1940. As a Missouri undergraduate he had won awards for his horsemanship and for polo, but there is no mention of further equine achievements thereafter. At Harvard Medical School his roommate was Thomas H. Weller, whom he later rejoined as a research fellow in the Enders laboratory. Upon graduation from Harvard Medical School, he spent a year as resident in bacteriology at Boston's Children's Hospital, followed by an internship in medicine (pediatrics) at the same institution. The course of his pediatrics residency training was interrupted by World War II; he joined the armed forces and served in North Africa and Italy as director of a diagnostic microbiology laboratory where his studies included hepatitis, typhus, and Q fever. Upon discharge in 1946 he was awarded the Bronze Star. He returned to Children's Hospital, where he completed his residency in 1948 and then proceeded to the laboratory in the Research Division of Infectious Diseases directed by John F. Enders. After two years as a research fellow, he became an associate in the division and remained with Enders until 1952, when he moved to Cleveland's case Western Reserve University Medical School. During the years in Boston, he, Weller, and Enders conducted the investigations that led to the Nobel-recognized work on the propagation of polioviruses in cell cultures of non-neural tissues. In addition to demonstrating the replication of viruses in these cultures, they were able to recognize specific cytopathic effects as virus destroyed infected cells and to demonstrate that antibodies from the sera of polio patients or polio-infected monkeys could block this growth and cytopathic effect.

Aside from the scientific achievements, Robbins would point out happily and proudly that he met his wife, Alice Northrop, in the Enders laboratory, where she was a research technician. They shared similar backgrounds in that Robbins's father, Professor William J. Robbins, was a botanist, originally a professor at the University of Missouri and later a professor at Columbia and director of the New York Botanical Garden. Alice's father, John H. Northrop, was a Nobel laureate in chemistry working at the Princeton branch of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. (Both father and father-in-law were members of the American Philosophical Society, and William Robbins was its president 1956-57.)

From 1952 until the time of his death, Robbins worked in various capacities at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine except for five years when he was in Washington, D.C., as president of the Institute of Medicine. At Case Western he was initially chief of pediatrics and contagious diseases at what was then the Cleveland City Hospital, where he trained a generation of pediatric scholars in infectious disease and clinical and research work. …

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